From the 10th through the 12th, my fiance and I participated in the Diocese of Pittsburgh‘s Catholic Engaged Encounter. We weren’t able to take the night classes downtown, so the retreat was our only option for satisfying the diocese requirements. I’d heard a range of appraisals of the experience, from "Eh – nothing special" to "hotbed for heterodoxy" to "a lot of fun".
Ultimately, I found the weekend to be a mixed bag. We learned some useful relationship lessons, but nothing substantial about what it means to enter the Sacrament of holy Matrimony. I also had issues with the site and masses held there. On the other hand, we made some friends. I didn’t want to lump everything together, so I’ve decided to post two entries. This one covers the site and the Masses. The second will cover the educational content.
The Kearns Spirituality Center is located on the campus of La Roche College in Allison Park, PA (about a half hour north of Pittsburgh). La Roche is founded and sponsored by the sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence. In theory, it’s a Catholic school, but I couldn’t find anything besides the word "Catholic" in their mission statement to demonstrate it. The CDP mission statement also seems rather generic. Not only does it not seem particularly Catholic, it’s barely Christian. Jesus’ name could be replaced with Buddha without having much impact. The mission statement for the "spirituality center" leaves even more to be desired. I didn’t know all this before I went, by the way. I only had the vague feeling that the name "Spirituality Center" portended quasi-New Age, universalist, and "progressive" nuttiness.
It’s 8PM Friday and we’ve arrived a little late at the center. It’s a fairly attractive building – modern, but tasteful. We take our bags to our rooms and join everyone else in the conference room (The tables were removed and all the chairs were arranged to face the white board on one of the long walls). I’ll save the content of the first talk for Part 2.
After the talk, the priest asked if anyone wanted to help out with Saturday’s mass. I asked him if he needed/wanted someone to serve altar. He seemed nonplussed but accepted my offer. I asked if he or the center had cassocks and surplices. He laughed and said I needn’t worry about that. I said in reply that it wasn’t a worry; I wanted to wear them. He chuckled somewhat nervously and said I could "take the day off" and serve as-is. That exchange didn’t give me a comfortable feeling. I felt like a child who’d been assured that his tooth was placed adequately under the pillow and that the Tooth Fairy would indeed come. Perhaps that’s an odd analogy, but it captures the feeling that a genuine concern of mine was met with benevolent condescension.
I brushed off the bizarre exchange and went with my fiance to visit the chapel. The Visitation Chapel is shaped a bit like a magic wand. The hallway is the shaft. Before the hallway ends and the gathering space begins, there is a burbling font. I’m really not sure if Holy Water flowed through it or not, but I gave it benefit of the doubt. I’m really not fond of those things. They just don’t seem reverent or tasteful.
Anyhow, after blessing ourselves, we proceeded into the chapel proper, which, as a six-pointed star, serves as the head of the wand. As with the exterior, the architecture is tasteful and attractive, if a bit plain. It’s a comfortable room with large, clear windows dominating about half the walls. There’s an inoffensive wood cutout on the right that depicts the Visitation. On the left is a baby grand piano. The ceiling is high and comes to a flattened peak with small skylights.
There are no pews. Instead, there are individual chairs arranged around the room, facing inward to face the altar. There are no kneelers. That really annoyed me.
Looking past the chairs, we see the altar. No altar clothe adorns it’s wooden surface. It’s round. Put some bar stools around it and you’d have a fine table. Why make it round? It’s not like they want to incense the whole thing, assuming they even had the implements. It’s a monument to pointlessness. I thought "progressives" moved the altar away from the wall so the priest could face the people. How can he do that with people seated on every side of him?
At this point, I’m quite irritated and my blood pressure is shooting up. It’s too bad the situation didn’t improve. Behind the altar, hanging from wires is one of the ugliest crucifixes I’ve ever seen. It’s a stained glass work of abstract "art". I call it "Jesus of the Crab Hands". Below it, on a small table that resembles a nightstand, resides what must be the tabernacle. I only know that because there is a lit candle next to it. Nothing about the box itself reveals its purpose – no obvious directionality or door. It’s about the size and shape of a very large shoebox. It’s black and the sides have vertical strips of hammered metal. It looks more like a rectangular hatbox than a tabernacle. At least it’s not hidden away in a corner. Then again, it might as well be if nobody recognizes it for what it is.
Everything about this place screams of inclusiveness overriding tradition and orthodoxy. The tyranny of PC church building apparently eschews the inclusion of traditional forms of reverence. A Quaker might feel at home there, but I didn’t. It’s not that most of its aspects are overtly illicit, but rather that the room doesn’t feel like a sanctuary. It’s more like a lobby, waiting room, or perhaps a small food court. I can imagine plants and sculptures adorning it. It’d be a delightful place in which to read and sip a coffee, but not worship.
That night and over the course of the weekend, I looked around the building and grounds for signs of authentic Catholicism. I didn’t find many. The bookshelves held more zen how-tos than Catholic, or even Protestant spiritual works. The only author whose name jumped out at me was Thomas Merton, who I’ve been told wandered a bit off the orthodox path in his later years. There were few genuine crucifixes to be seen. Most were resurrexifixes or plain crosses. At least one of the crucifixes was mounted next to door and was obscured by opening it. Two bright spots were the meditation walk and outdoor labyrinth. What the facility tour site doesn’t show or tell is that the meditation connects with a path lined with statues depicting the stations of the cross. I guess mentioning it would be un-inclusive.
Mass on Saturday wasn’t really noteworthy. I was the only extraordinary minister of the Eucharist. We didn’t sing. The homily was forgettable and harmless. The only thing that bothered me was that nobody knelt for the consecration. I realize it’s only optional in the absence of kneelers, but that doesn’t stop people at Heinz Chapel. Rather than draw attention to myself, I decided to "do as the Romans" and remain standing. All the while, I was thinking to myself, "Kneeling, aside from showing proper reverence for the Real Presence, is the norm in this diocese".
"In the dioceses of the United States of America, they should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise." – General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 43
Sunday was a different matter. I chose not to serve so I could sit next to my fiance. Before mass started, copies of the Gather songbook were handed out. As a convert who goes to mass with the Oratorian Fathers 95%, I was unaware of what lay in store for me. The priest asked if anyone could play piano. Silence answered him, so he informed us that we’d be singing a capella. Our opening hymn? "Canticle of the Sun" by Marty Haugen. I refused to sing. That’s not dignified mass music. It’d be fine for a praise and worship sing, but not the Sacred Liturgy. I’m a proud member of SMMMHDH, the Society for a Moratorium on the Music of Marty Haugen and David Haas. I’d like to ban Ernie Sands, too, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
At the offertory, there wasn’t a collection. We’d paid a lot of money for the weekend already. Also, donations were solicited earlier in the day. When a couple went to a table in the back to get the gifts, the priest instructed them to bring the donation box. He proceeded to place it on the altar! If you don’t know why that’s wrong, read Redemptionis Sacramentum . One good act of disobedience and sacrilege deserves another. For the consecration, we were asked to make a circle around altar. This, too, is a reprobated practice. My fiance and I joined the circle but remained on the side opposite the priest.
The homily was again forgettable and harmless. On a side note, I don’t like when priests leave the pulpit to pace back and forth. It’s distracting and reminds me of televangelists. To close this reverent experience, an irritating 5/4 time piece by Ernie Sands called "Sing of the Lord’s Goodness" was sung. Again, I refrained. Who the heck told him 5/4 is a good signature for church music?!? The timing and the melody strongly reminded me of several songs in "Jesus Christ Superstar". Don’t get me wrong – I love that musical (it’s one of the few I can tolerate). It’s just woefully inappropriate for the liturgy. I’d call the songs hippy music, but most of the hippies I’ve met have far better taste. Give me "In the Garden of Eden" ("Inna Gadda Da Vida"), ala "The Simpsons", any day. 😉
So that’s it. Most of my gripes are of an aesthetic nature, but some aren’t. If I were the bishop, I’d disband the CDP, renovate Kearns, and censure the CEE priest. Why doesn’t Bishop Wuerl have a spine? I know he’s an orthodox guy, but I’ve yet to hear of him keeping rogue progressives in check. I’ll be posting soon about a scandal involving St. Agnes Church, which belongs to Carlow University, another CINO school.
[A small quote from the GIRM, regarding kneeling, was added September 28. – Funky]
Read part 2 here.